For a televised sport long thought to be unassailable, NFL football has had a bumpy first half of its season. Ratings have dropped by double digits across its three primetime nights, Sunday, Monday and Thursday. The traditional Sunday afternoon games have posted only single-digit declines.
A range of factors have been blamed: the presidential election; player injuries/suspensions; growing disaffection with player concussions and off-field conduct; excessive penalties; and a spate of poorly planned matchups that have been anything but must-see games. Play-by-play broadcasters like Al Michaels and Sean McDonough have even complained on-air about flagging ratings.
Media agency sports buyers, however, are hardly panicking. They say the TV networks televising NFL games have been giving their clients ad makegoods on an ongoing basis to cover ratings shortfalls since the start of the season. For them, the NFL remains at the top of the content heap.
Buyers contacted by B&C echo the sentiments of Stephen Burke. The NBCUniversal CEO addressed it during Comcast’s earnings call with analysts on Wednesday. “We’re watching it and obviously you’d rather have ratings up than down, but having ratings decline modestly and still being very strong properties doesn’t cause us too much concern,” he said. Network execs and buyers spoke on the condition of anonymity, given the stakes of a TV segment worth tens of billions. They do not consider the ratings declines to be an issue and said they believe that once the presidential election takes place on Nov. 8 and the NFL matchups become more meaningful in the second half of the season, ratings will grow.
Says one media buyer for a major NFL advertiser, “My clients have seen the stories in the press about NFL ratings being down and asked us about it. We told them not only have we been monitoring the situation but that the networks have been making sure they are getting the audience levels they have been guaranteed.”
The buyer adds, “It’s nothing we’re freaking out over. The networks are working with us and right now we are still in a good place.”
Another sports buyer says, “If we ask the networks for makegoods, we are getting them. If we want to wait until later in the season, we can do that. But these early ratings shortfalls are not a concern to advertisers right now. The NFL is still the highest rated programming on television and being watched by mass audiences in real time.”
Basically the networks televising NFL games including CBS, NBC, Fox and ESPN have been following the same policy as NBC did during the Summer Olympics, when ratings fell short right from the opening ceremony. They have been doling out makegoods on an ongoing basis to keep marketers on target.
However, one buyer acknowledged that perhaps that is not for every single advertiser, but at least for the big spenders and NFL partners. “Pretty much all of our clients are getting close to 100% delivery right now,” the agency exec says. “It’s not as doom-and-gloom, as the press has portrayed things.”
A source at one of the major NFL partner networks agreed that makegoods have been handed out in order to make up ratings shortfalls so that the networks do not get too far behind their ratings guarantees.
So how have the networks been able to make the advertisers whole despite the ratings declines so far this season? Buyers say the additional Thursday night package awarded to NBC (sharing the season with CBS) added a large amount of gross rating points to the total pie of ad avails. The Summer Olympics also had some impact on some advertisers, who decided to spend less during the first two months of the NFL season.
“There were so many GRPs in the NFL marketplace heading into the season that the networks had more inventory to sell in scatter,” says one buyer. “Supply was greater than demand so they wound up having extra avails this year and that worked out great for the advertisers when ratings were not meeting guarantees.”
While the situation is good for the advertisers right now, buyers have expressed some possible concerns if the ratings declines don’t turn around after the election.
“The networks are more heavily sold for November and December than they were for September and October, so if the ratings continue to be depressed after the election, some problems could arise,” one buyer says.
However, a look at the ratings patterns during the first six games of the NFL season shows that election campaign programming on cable each night and the presidential debates, including two on Sunday night in primetime, has significantly cut into NFL viewership. As the press has accurately reported, the game matchups in primetime, where the largest ratings shortfalls have occurred, have not exactly been a big draw for viewers compared to last season.
The Monday night primetime game on Oct. 16 on ESPN, for example, featured the 1-4 New York Jets vs. the 2-3 Arizona Cardinals. That game, according to Nielsen data, averaged 8.4 million viewers, well below the 2015 ESPN average of 12.9 million.
But on that night across cable, five of the Top 10 most-watched shows of the night were political news programming on Fox News Channel, which averaged between 2.4 million and 3.2 million viewers each. On that night, the NFL telecast not only was the most watched show on cable, but also outdrew the MLB American League Championship Series game between the Cleveland Indians and Toronto Blue Jays that averaged 4.3 million viewers. And about 45% of the ESPN NFL audience was in the 18-49 advertiser-desired demo.
“You have to realize that the NFL each year has been averaging close to record ratings so at some point the league telecasts are going to reach a saturation point,” one buyer says, adding that the recent ratings declines, although impacted by the election coverage, need to be put in perspective.
“The NFL is still far and away the most-watched programming in the TV landscape and will continue to be,” a buyer says. “We are not recommending to any of our clients that they should not advertise in the NFL. We are still very much believers in NFL advertising. Live sports is still the place to be.”
Another buyer says, “The current situation of ratings declines is not going to change the way we buy the NFL. At the end of the season, the NFL will still have something like 45 of the Top 50 most-watched programs on television in the fourth quarter.”
One buyer says his agency’s analysis of NFL viewership finds people still watching their home teams play, but some are watching more politics right now than tuning into games that don’t involve their local teams. He believes that will change once the election is over and the games become more meaningful as the season gets closer to the playoffs and games with non-local teams could have an impact on those local teams.
As for the networks taking a hit by having to dole out makegoods, agency execs believe it’s not all bad for them either.
“You have to remember that every network each year charges more for each ad unit than they did the year before, in some instances, more so than justified by the previous year’s ratings, because of the demand,” one buyer explains. “So the networks are taking in a lot more money before the season starts and if they have to give out some makegoods they can still be in good shape. Not only that, but the networks use the large mass audiences to promote their other programming to football viewers that might not be regular watchers of their network.”
A network executive confirmed the process by which the networks in the upfront usually charge more for ads by offering higher guarantees. They would rather take in the money early and pay some back in the form of makegoods, than to keep guarantees lower, take in less cash and overdeliver.
Fox and CBS on Sunday afternoons have seen low-single digit viewer declines, rather than the hefty double-digit declines as NBC and ESPN have seen in primetime. So it is easier for Fox and CBS for keep advertisers whole and not take enormous financial hits, at least so far.
Even with an 18% decline in viewers for the season to date, NBC is still drawing close to 20 million for Sunday Night Football, making it still the top draw in all of TV by far. As one buyer points out, one Sunday night ADU (audience deficiency unit) can cover a sizable amount of ratings deficit for each advertiser. And even with its falling ratings on Monday night, ESPN is still far and away the most-watched cable network on that night.
Of course, what happens in November and December, where inventory is tighter and there are fewer units available to meet ratings declines, remains to be seen. But it’s likely that if the division races get tighter and matchups become more meaningful, as is often the case, ratings will edge up close to if not equal to last season. Plus the playoffs, of which every network has a piece, has traditionally had strong mass viewership, at a moment in January when college football is over and the NBA season is still in its first phase.
Things could also be better as the schedule starts to play out. For example, NBC in its Thursday and Sunday night telecast has games coming up such as the Dallas Cowboys vs. the Philadelphia Eagles; Dallas vs. the Minnesota Vikings and the New England Patriots vs. the Seattle Seahawks. The Cowboys and Patriots, in particular, have strong national followings.
As for the playoffs, the wild card and divisional playoff games on NBC last year drew between 25 million and 30 million and the NFC and AFC championship games on Fox and CBS drew about 49 million and 42 million, respectively. Losing a few million this season, were that to happen, is not going to break the bank for the networks, nor is it going to cause advertisers to want to sit out.
Says one network exec, “Despite all the negative stories about ratings, it has pretty much been business as usual with the NFL telecasts and our advertisers. We did account for ratings shortfalls before the season started. Right now there is no panic.”
And a buyer added, “We are in partnership with these networks. Most of them have been televising the NFL for many years. We spend a lot of our clients’ money with them and they are working to take care of us.”